Adele, Thanks for the Cultural Appreciation

I could’ve used it as a kid when I was shamed for my Caribbean roots.

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Photo: Adele/Instagram

I recently wrote two articles on cultural appropriation for Reader’s Digest, and when a friend and former colleague in Australia shared one on Facebook, someone tried to whitesplain cultural appropriation in a comment under it. That was annoying, but I was more frustrated because her defensiveness made it clear she didn’t bother to read my article before pontificating aimlessly about the big C.

I wrote a response about a half dozen paragraphs more succinct than hers and let it go. But thoughts of cultural appropriation are swirling in my head again, thanks to the controversy over the bantu knots and Jamaican flag bikini top Adele wore in an August 30 Instagram post marking the cancelled-because-of-the-pandemic Notting Hill Festival, an annual celebration of the Caribbean culture that permeates London.

My husband, who is White and Australian, was the first person to show me the Adele photo, and as he did, he asked if I thought it was cultural appropriation. At the time, I was torn. I’m not anymore. The other day, I read a Business Insider India article that helped me set myself straight. I disagreed with the article’s implication, via the example of Rita Ora, that growing up surrounded by Black culture protects White people from being guilty of appropriating it. That didn’t stop White kids in the Old South from being racist adults, and it doesn’t stop White kids today from graduating into grown-up racists.

By the time I finished reading the article, I decided that cancel culture activists are just as annoying as the people who are blaming the breakdown of civilization on them. They’re both trying to shut down other voices without bothering to consider that race and racism are more nuanced than black and white. Neither side is always wrong, but both sides need to be better listeners.

As for the Adele controversy, the article got me thinking about my history with my own Caribbean heritage and how by paying her respects to African-descended culture (bantu knots, though popular in Black cultures globally, originated in Africa), Adele was making a much more important statement (for me, at least) than she does when she fangirls over Beyoncé.

Let me explain. I’ve been to Notting Hill in London a number of times, and I know the area is significantly populated by Black people of Caribbean descent. I was born in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and I consider my Caribbean heritage to be just as important to my identity as being a Black person, a gay person, and an American are, so from my first visit to London in 1995, boroughs like Notting Hill and Brixton felt like home.

A brief history of me

Getting to the place where I was proud of my West Indian roots wasn’t easy. As a kid growing up in Kissimmee, Florida, I was taunted and occasionally physically assaulted by the Black kids in my neighborhood because I talked with a funny accent. It was a classic case of hurt people hurting people. They all assumed my family was from Jamaica and therefore we must have thought we were better than American Blacks.

The last thing I want to hear are Black Americans shaming Adele for supposedly appropriating a culture that Black Americans have traditionally had no problem ridiculing and other-ing.

The taunting and the occasional punches, like the less physically oppressive racism I experienced from White people, were constant reminders that I was different, and there were times — most of the time — when I wanted nothing more than to be like everyone else. But which everyone else? I figured being either White or a Black American had to be easier than putting up with constant bullying because I was born the wrong color and in the wrong place.

Today, I realize how wrong I was to try to deny my complete heritage — I would tell people I was born in the Virginia Islands so that I could hide the truth without lying too much — and the last thing I want to hear are Black Americans shaming Adele for supposedly appropriating a culture that Black Americans have traditionally had no problem ridiculing and other-ing.

I’d also rather not hear from the White people who deflect and deny every time someone brings up racism or cultural appropriation. To them, it’s easier than engaging in the difficult conversations society is now demanding and possibly having to face a monster in the mirror.

I’m not from Jamaica or Africa, so I can’t speak for Jamaicans or Africans, but judging from the response of many of my fellow Caribbeans to Adele’s ensemble, they approve. You see, cultural appreciation is a thing. It allows us to borrow from other cultures and lead lives that aren’t just wastelands of monochromatic provincialism.

Appropriation vs. appreciation … again

If Adele had been appropriating Black culture to make a White fashion statement or just because she thinks it’s cool (as so many before her have done), she might have paired the bantu knots with a flowing peasant dress or, worse yet, saved her Instagram outfit for Halloween or her next video, where it would be a costume, not a tribute (there’s a difference). Instead, the British singer paid her respects to a Caribbean event by wearing her respect for one of the UK’s predominantly Black fellow Commonwealth nations on her chest — literally. As a kid, I wish I’d seen a major celebrity of any race so proudly waving the flag for my Caribbean culture.

Black women are discriminated against for wearing cornrows and other natural hairstyles, often losing jobs or not being considered for them in the first place because of hairstyles that don’t conform to White beauty standards.

If that’s not cultural appreciation, then what is? It’s in a completely different vicinity from Kim Kardashian posting a photo of herself wearing cornrows and calling them “Bo Derek braids” when Black women had been wearing them for decades before Derek showed up on that beach in the 1979 movie 10. Considering her family’s penchant for dating, marrying, and co-parenting with Black rappers and sports stars, you’d think she’d have a firmer grasp on Black history, but as with so many White people who embrace the celebrity glamour of Blackness, the pain of it is apparently an afterthought, if she thinks about that at all.

Black women are discriminated against for wearing cornrows and other natural hairstyles, often losing jobs or not being considered for them in the first place because of hairstyles that don’t conform to White beauty standards. (That, people, is why many of them wear wigs and straighten their hair, so stop using that as an example of reverse cultural appropriation, as if White people invented straight hair or are the only ones born with it.) Meanwhile, the Kardashians and Bo Dereks of the White world are applauded for the same Black hairstyles. Look at them, so trendsetting — so White, clean, and neat.

Folks, welcome to cultural appropriation — where White people dabble in traditions from cultures they’ve historically plundered and massacred without showing even a hint of informed appreciation for them. Personally, I don’t think the bantu knots and Jamaican flag bra were Adele’s most flattering look, but if her goal was to show people how to wear other cultures with pride and without prejudice, I consider it a job well done.

Written by

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa” https://rb.gy/3mthoj

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